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Last week, I got in a taxi with a Polish driver. When he heard I was from Bulgaria, he told me the following joke:

Sometime in the early 1980s, elephants were a very fashionable topic in the Soviet Union. People were interested in elephant biology, elephant behavior, elephant popular culture, and even elephant literature. The USSR Academy of Sciences published a 10-volume encyclopedia on elephants. The Bulgarian Academy of Sciences published an 11-volume encyclopedia on elephants: the 10 Russian volumes plus an eleventh called “The Bulgarian elephant: The Soviet Union’s best friend.”

I cracked up!

Not because the joke itself is that funny, but because it is very witty and insightful. The “joke” accurately captures the social and political pro-Soviet leanings Bulgarians had at the time.

 

One of the absurdities of the regime was that people could be pulling and pushing the elephant in opposite directions, and everyone was still doing exactly what they were supposed to do.

 

Hearing such a joke from a Polish was like hearing a dirty little joke that only you and someone very close to you can understand. It was like two roommates talking about the skeleton in their shared closet.

In fact Poles and Bulgarians are able to exchange such witty anecdotes because at a point in history, we were both heavily dependent on the Soviet Union. The social and political influence of the USSR was such a big common denominator, that it established a lot of similarities between the mindsets in our countries at the time. We were all part of the same overarching socialist system, recognized the same cultural symbols, encountered the same problems, etc.

This is valid even now, twenty years later, because we still remember or at least recognize the remnants of the Soviet culture. And this is valid for all countries influenced by the Soviets: from Poland and Lithuania, past Bulgaria and Ukraine, as far east as Tajikistan.  There simply are some universal elements from that time that all of us can in some way relate to: the Russian language, the vivid political imagery, the absurdities of the regime, the history that we’ve all studied, the general sense of order, and the disillusionment that followed.

So, what the taxi driver said is funny because it’s an inside joke. It tickles the sensitive cord that only peoples with shared historical influences have. Outsiders just don’t have the same skeletons in their closet.

I love this feeling of being part of a shared common pool of knowledge and experience. We might make biting jokes about each other, but ultimately, there is a piece of history deeply ingrained in our character that brings us together… and always makes for a good conversation starter.

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